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Nets Taking a Chance on Athleticism

If the Nets' trade of Jason Collins for Stromile Swift said one thing, it's this: the Nets appear to be putting a premium on least on the surface. Taken as part of a recent trend, Swift's acquisition may signal a change in Nets' thinking about their identity...and give some hints about what the Nets might want to do in the future. It also might say something about what the Nets could look like in Kiki Vandeweghe era.

Stromile SwiftDuring last off-season, the Nets did what they normally do: lard the roster with aging veterans in hopes of getting deep in the playoffs with time-tested players. The Nets spent $5.5 million on Jamaal Magloire, Darrell Armstrong and Malik Allen. Only Allen was even minimally effective. None can be described as athletic. Shades of Scott Padgett, Lamond Murray, Rodney Rogers, Ron Mercer, Marc Jackson, Jeff McInnis, Alonzo Mourning, etc., etc. The strategy didn't work this season and it hasn't in the recent past.

Before trading away Jason Collins and Jason Kidd, the Nets made one on-court move and one off-court move to improve their athleticism. On court, they switched out Collins and Allen for Josh Boone and Sean Williams. After an initial period of success, the team has drifted into what can most kindly be described as mediocrity.

Then, they made the mirror image trade of Collins. Out went Collins, a brainy but unathletic veteran with 75 playoff games and a reputation as a solid position defender and a locker-room positive. In came Swift, a less than brainy but hyper-athletic veteran with only seven playoff games and a reputation as a shot blocker and locker-room negative. The trade came after Swift was suspended by Memphis coach Marc Iavaroni for conduct detrimental to the team.

Swift is nothing if athletic. He is a highlight reel, even more so than Sean Williams, if only because of his experience and added muscle. He can run with Kidd or Marcus Williams or whoever else is throwing alley-oops by year's end. Do a Google search for "Stromile Swift" and "athleticism" and you'll come up with 3,600 hits. His dunkathons have been called the "Stro Show". Unfortunately, a Google search for "Stromile Swift" and "raw" gives you 4,550 hits. And his nickname in Memphis has often been "Not So". Therein likes the problem.

Even at 28, he can run and jump with the best of them, capable of leading a fast break. But he is often injured...and his reputation is the opposite of Colllins in this area as well. Over the past seven and a half years, he has missed an average of 15 games a year. Last year, he missed 28...and that was mainly due to nagging injuries, nothing catastrophic.

Here's how Memphis sports writer Geoff Calkins described his effort last season...note the heavy dose of sarcasm:

"The stars tend to get all the credit, but no team can accomplish important things without key contributions from role players. Players who are willing to put larger goals ahead of things like personal accomplishment or, say, self-respect. Can you imagine how humiliating it must have been for Swift - who already had a reputation as a malingerer - to miss games with "back spasms" and a "sprained ankle" and the "flu?" He did it, though, and to heck with what people thought. Some people try to play through injuries. Swift courageously sat through his."

There is also lack of focus and inconsistency, great games or even great stretches where he can put up monster block and dunks and look like he is about to break out followed by listlessness that drivers coaches mad.

He doesn't always get along with coaches, as witnessed by his exchange with Iavaroni last week that led to his suspension and now the trade.

Ron Tillery of the Commercial Appeal described what happened:

"Coach Marc Iavaroni insisted on the suspension for what he called "conduct detrimental to the team" after a verbal disagreement during the Grizzlies' loss Monday against Dallas.

"Iavaroni reportedly expressed his displeasure with Swift's body language and readiness to play. Swift then responded in a manner Iavaroni deemed inappropriate."

The Nets will tell you that's an isolated incident, but lest you think his problems were limited to Iavaroni, there was this exchange with Jeff Van Gundy during his playing days in Houston, as quoted by Dave D'Alessandro this week following first word of the trade:

"Jeff Van Gundy had him one year in Houston (05-06) and concluded, 'It's been a career-long quest to find a game and intensity level and focus so that the word 'potential' is not always used in the sentence with him and he can reach some kind of consistency. It hasn't happened for him yet, but that doesn't preclude it from happening.'

"Stro's reaction: 'Guys that say things like that, most of them are cowards. Most would never say things to your face.'"

Okay then.

But there is no doubt he believes in himself and his value as an NBA player. As D'Alessandro also notes, "in March of 2005, he turned down a deal offered by Jerry West that could have paid him $9M per if he reached incentives. He held out for 6/60." He wound up with the Rockets for 4/25.

Rod Thorn has liked him. He was on the short list for the #1 overall pick in 2000, going just behind Kenyon Martin at #2. In the summer of 2005, Swift was one of three free agent power forwards the Nets had their eyes on. The other two were Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Donyell Marshall. Abdur-Rahim was the top choice but when John Nash, then Blazer GM, started demanding a first-round pick along with the Nets trade exception, Thorn at first balked and opened talks with Swift's agent, who was only too happy to talk. Swift agreed to the Nets' terms but Thorn relented and agreed to make a deal with Nash. The rest of course is history: the Nets pulled their offer to Abdur-Rahim because of his knee problems. By the time the deal fell apart, Swift was in Houston at a press conference.

There have indeed been stretches where he has dominated, even coming off the bench. The best example of that came last season, when Mike Fratello was replaced as Grizzlies coach by Tony Barone. Barone installed a wide open game and Swift as his sixth man. In the next five games--before he got hurt--Swift averaged 15.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and shot 57.1% from the floor while playing 30 minutes a game.

When he arrived, a set of questions arose. Were the Nets going to cut away at Sean Williams' time when Williams is one of the future foundations of the team and their skillsets are equal? Does he spell Boone? It's hard to imagine Swift and Williams on the court at the same time. And with Nenad Krstic working his way back into the lineup, how does that change the mix? Not a lot of answers by year's end.

Sean Williams numbers were better than Swift's at the time of the trade, both overall and in games where they have played 20 or more minutes. Williams is averaging 7.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 2.0 bpg; Swift 6.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, and 1.0 bpg. In games where they have played 20+, Sean Williams is averaging 9.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks...that's 23 games. Swift has averaged 10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks...that's 11 games.

The Nets may also have some inside knowledge--or hope--that Swift intends to exercise his player option seriously on June 30 and forego the $6.1 million he is owed...and that could be the underlying rationale for the trade.

But the Nets had made this kind of gamble before and unfortunately been burned. Remember Eddie Griffin? Swift is not as deeply, deeply troubled as Griffin. But he presents the same risk/reward package...the same tease. If it works, good for everyone. If it doesn't, the lumbering image of Jason Collins could be more fondly remembered than that of the the high flying Swift.